In a pivotal scene in Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice,” the eldest Bennett sister, Jane, is encouraged by her mother to ride on horseback through a heavy rain to have lunch on the neighboring estate of a rich and eligible bachelor. When an objection is made that Jane might come down with a “chill” as a result, the mother openly and gleefully acknowledges that she hopes that will be the case because her daughter will then be forced to stay overnight on the estate, increasing the odds that the bachelor will fall in love with her.
And, indeed, Jane does develop a respiratory infection — remarkably, before the luncheon is over — and is forced to stay at the estate for several days as she recuperates.
In the 18th and 19th centuries — before the 1892 discovery of viruses — people had no idea what caused the common cold and other respiratory infections, so blaming cold temperatures, especially during damp or rainy weather, was as good a guess as any. The explanation made sense to most people because respiratory infections are more prevalent during the chilly fall and winter months and because cold temperatures can cause noses to run. (This belief may also explain how the common cold got its name.)
But, as University of Michigan public health graduate student Gillian Mayman explains in a delightfully illustrated article posted Monday as part of that university’s course on Communicating Science through Social Media, there’s no good evidence to link being cold with getting a cold.
Yet even today, in the 21st century, most people continue to believe that the two are connected.
It can take a long, long time for the public to let go of medical wives’ tales and myths.
Very weak evidence
Mayman points out that only one study, conducted in 2005, supports the idea that being cold gives you a cold, and it has methodological problems that put the findings in doubt:
In this study, 180 college students were randomly separated into two groups. The first group of 90 students had their feet placed in a bowl of 50 degree Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) water for 20 minutes. The other group of 90 students kept their socks and shoes on and placed their feet in an empty bowl for 20 minutes. The researchers found that within 4-5 days, cold symptoms appeared about 10% more often in the students who had their feet chilled. …
[But the study] was not blind. That is, the people who had their feet chilled knew that their feet were being chilled (of course). Even worse, the cold symptoms of the students were self-reported. The students kept daily journals after having their feet chilled (or not) and wrote down any cold-like symptoms that they experienced. The placebo effect is well studied and researchers know that simply thinking that something has happened which may cause an effect, can actually case a real effect.
As Mayman indicates, the studies that show no effect between exposure to cold temperatures and getting a cold are also problematic. But much less so.
An early skeptic
Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin, a contemporary of Austen’s, was a skeptic of the idea that cold temperatures and the common cold were connected. Always the scientist, he also made an astute observation that presaged the discovery of viruses. Writes Mayman:
He observed that sailors were constantly wearing wet clothing in cold weather but still remained healthy. He concluded that “People often catch cold from one another when shut up together in small close rooms, coaches, &c. and when sitting near and conversing so as to breathe in each other’s transpiration.”
Franklin apparently practiced what he preached, sleeping with an open window and sometimes sitting naked in a room to let the fresh air cleanse his skin.
Jane Austen was a novelist, not a scientist, so we can forgive her for using young-woman-goes-out-in-rainstorm-and-immediately-becomes-ill as a plot device. (It plays a central role in the plot of “Sense and Sensibility,” too.) After all, she was only reflecting what she thought to be state-of-the-art medical knowledge.
Indeed, the Anglican minister (and later founder of Methodism) John Wesley cited cold temperatures as a cause of colds in his very popular 1747 medical treatise “Primitive Physick.” (Wesley also suggested that a head cold could be cured by rolling up thin slices of orange and stuffing them up your nostrils.)
But it’s now 200 years later. We should know better.